On Signposts & Sehnsucht


The following is my response to an observation proffered by my friend, Dr. Robert Johnston from Fuller [Reel Spirituality (2006); God’s Wider Presence (2014)]. Our discussion revolved around C. S. Lewis and the “feeling intellect” (see Corbin Carnell, Bright Shadow of Reality: C. S. Lewis and the Feeling Intellect):

“For Lewis, the best art has the best content. Reason  and imagination should come together. Thus, as you know, with Narnia, [as] to the original images that didn’t even have Aslan present, Lewis says there was a bubbling that produced a story with true content. Perhaps this is why he comes to value those experiences of joy less as they lack the rational side.

Thanks for any perspective you might have.


The “joy” to which Rob refers is a rendering of the German word, sehnsucht. There isn’t an adequate word in English to capture the essence of this wonderful German concept. Lewis described sehnsucht as “a nostalgic longing for that which we cannot possess.” It is a longing for “the ideal country” that can only be satisfied in the person of Jesus Christ.

That longing may have grown dormant, having been anesthetized by the counterfeit substitutes we all ingest in massive quantities. But that same longing can be reinvigorated. This is Lewis’s point. In the best of his writing we witness Lewis as spiritual apothecary, one who pestles base reason and imagination into a vital serum which awakens the patient to the awareness of a greater reality – even though it is a reality that the patient cannot enjoy apart from the transfusion of Divine blood.

In my response to Rob, I address the relationship between reason and imagination in Lewis:

Hi Rob,

I agree that for Lewis, the best art is not only accessible in terms of its “meaning”, but substantive (i.e., the meaning the viewer derives should be consistent with the intention of the artist in composing the work). I think this helps explain why Lewis had so little use for theater, and in particular contemporary theater. It was too “loose,” too lacking in the conventional interpretive anchors that he was able to apply with such precision and confidence to classical literature. By the way, I find Lewis’s penchant for “accessibility” a bit curious, given the proposition of Michael Ward in Planet Narnia that Lewis has deeply embedded mythical symbolism in the Chronicles that provide a key to a far deeper appreciation than was originally accorded them. It wasn’t completely inaccessible, but it sure took a long time to connect Lewis’s mythical/planetary dots if Ward is right, and I think he makes a fairly compelling case.

But I think that to say he devalues the joy of the “signpost encounters” due to their lacking a rational component is to misread him a bit. As I read Lewis, what strikes me is his increased appreciation of the divine Object toward which the “signposts” point, as he matures in his faith. It isn’t that the joy diminishes due to an absence or diminution of a rational element, but that the object of joy shifts. It’s a bit like the child who, in the beginning, is delighted beyond words with the ice cream (the “signpost”) his mother gives him as a treat, but who, years later is infinitely more appreciative of the one who provided the ice cream in the first place. His initial joy was real, but as he matures, his joy becomes deeper, more profound, as he shifts his allegiance to the giver of the gift. It was just that, at his early level of (im)maturity, his capacity to appreciate the giver was tethered ineludibly to the gift.

The slow waltz of reason and imagination provide the basis for a thoroughly satisfying creation as well as analysis of any work of art, certainly. I believe we see the finest attempt at that union in TWHF [Till We Have Faces]. There, we find no struggle between the rational and the non-rational (note, not IRrational), but a near perfect melding of the two, a give and take – a dance, where both lead in a mirroring (mimesis) of symmetry and harmony, rhythm and a shared cadence that would render any attempt to separate them (through reductionistic criticism, let’s say) such a violation of the work as to destroy the piece altogether. It is choreographed, but the effect is natural, unforced – perhaps even inevitable. It MUST have been danced just so – like Astair and Rogers – you wouldn’t add a move or take one away. Each step is essential and ultimately complementary. We can’t pluck the petals, remove the pistil and the stamen, place the specimen on a metal tray then exhibit it as a “rose.” The whole is greater than the sum of its lovely parts. They (we) need each other if it’s really going to be a rose, or a dance.

Yes, the bubbling is essential to Lewis’s process. “The melody must come first,” as they say. Lewis himself said he would never have been able to conceive of writing a story from the “outside in” (my phrase). He wouldn’t have know what to do had someone come to him with an assignment, and said, “Now, Jack, it’s time to write a great children’s story that allegorizes the Christian faith; get hopping!” He saw in his vivid imagination a picture of a faun in a snowy wood by a lamppost, and then followed the story where it led – a bit akin to Tolkien’s scribbling on a blank page of his student’s test book, “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” It was a scene loaded with sensate images that refused to hush and be still, that compelled both of them to write what they saw.

Well, there you go. It was a delight to hear from you, Rob.



Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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